Whole new school model Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood seeks to set new bar for teaching low-income kids

Students in classes at Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood are broken up into smaller groups where they receive more personal attention on skills, such as writing and word recognition.

When first-grader Gracie Baxter Smith goes to school, she enters a classroom named after the College of Charleston. She knows its song. She’s learned what year she’ll graduate from high school and go to college herself. She wants to be a nurse.

Yet she goes to Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood, a public elementary school in the disadvantaged heart of North Charleston where only about half of students graduate from high school and most don’t perform at grade level.

Meeting Street kids learn to identify with colleges — and that they will go to one.

For Gracie’s mom, Tessa Baxter, the new school is a welcome challenge for her daughter to excel. Baxter dropped out of North Charleston High, and she wants more for her kids.

“That’s the biggest thing for me,” Baxter said. “They want the kids to get an education, and that’s inspiring.”

The new school, wrapping up its first semester, has big goals for itself, too: Create a whole new model of quality education for kids who live in poverty.

It’s possible because Charleston County School Board members “took a real risk,” said Benjamin Navarro, whose financial company is the private half of this unique public-private partnership that will last for a minimum five years.

For starters, the district let Navarro’s nonprofit Meeting Street Schools open a new elementary in the vacant Brentwood Middle School building. The school’s principal has freedom to hire and fire her teachers. She sets its curriculum. And full-day school starts at 3 years old.

The immediate goal: Create a model school.

Future goal: Influence other low-performing schools to use it to make real change for kids.

“It’s not the kids,” Principal Sarah Campbell said. “It’s the schools and the systems we set up for them.”

When Charleston County School officials, including former Superintendent Nancy McGinley and board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats, seemed open to new answers to chronically failing schools, Navarro scheduled a meeting.

The founder and CEO of Sherman Financial Group, a Charleston-based diversified consumer finance company, had seen the huge disparity between public schools more affluent students attend and the low-performing ones that serve poor children.

As a result, he founded Meeting Street Schools to serve what he calls “under-resourced” children — and had his company bankroll it. The nonprofit opened two private schools, one in downtown Charleston and one in Spartanburg. Despite educating mostly low-income kids who pay nominal tuition costs, the vast majority of both schools’ students perform well above grade level. But they often are accused of succeeding, at least in part, because they can cherry-pick motivated students and parents.

Not so at the Brentwood school where Meeting Street Schools has moved into a new arena, that of the neighborhood public school. The Leeds Avenue school must serve all children who live in its attendance zone along an impoverished stretch of Dorchester Road. Parents don’t apply; there is no lottery or test to get in. No cherry-picking.

Instead, Meeting Street @ Brentwood aims to create a prototype by bolstering public funds with privates ones, then gathering data about what low-income students can accomplish with things like 3- and 4-year-old full-day academic preschool, longer school years, longer school days, two quality teachers in every classroom, a social worker and other support staff, and three meals a day.

The school doesn’t receive extra public money. It receives about $9,000 per student, the average neighboring elementary schools get.

Sherman and other private donors will pay about $3,000 per student once the school is full to fund all that public money doesn’t cover. They spent $1.3 million just to renovate and furnish the building.

“We need to create a benchmark school,” Navarro said. “This is a textbook example of what can be done. And we were willing to put our money where our mouths are.”

Just three of Kelly Eischeid’s 16 new kindergartners started this first year at the school able to write their names. Two-thirds of the school’s kindergartners couldn’t read or do math at grade level.

“It was really starting from scratch,” Eischeid said.

Most of Shaun Rolle’s first-graders couldn’t write their first and last names. One student, who attended three schools last year, was still reading on a preschool level.

“What they miss in their formative years is very, very hard to catch up on,” Rolle said.

Perhaps no goal at Meeting Street @ Brentwood is more critical than starting kids in full-day academic classes at age 3.

Lower-income students tend to start school far behind their more affluent peers, creating an achievement gap that becomes a 12-year struggle to catch up. Many never do.

“This whole thing is about fairness,” Navarro said. “It’s like a running race. If you get behind, you stay behind.”

Students who struggle in school are more at risk of developing behavioral and other problems that, in turn, make them even less likely to succeed.

“It sets a precedent that school isn’t fun. School is stressful,” said Gina Prevost, who teaches third grade at Meeting Street’s private school in Charleston.

The North Charleston school opened with 123 students in 3-year-old through kindergarten classes. It will add a class each year through fifth grade.

On a typical day, a kindergarten class is divided into three groups. One group works with a teacher on writing their names. Another studies other words with a teacher. A third more advanced group works independently. Soon, they rotate.

“It’s catered to exactly what these five kids need and what those five kids need,” Campbell said.

The school day also is longer here. So is the school year. And it may add summer school when so much of what kids learn evaporates into the endless hot days of nothing to do.

Extended day here also isn’t day care. Parents can pick up their children at the end of the school day or at 6 p.m., not in between. Teachers can’t plan academic lessons when kids constantly come and go.

“A culture of achievement sets this school apart from anywhere I’ve been before,” Eischeid said.

When Dot Scott first heard the idea of this school, suffice it to say she was apprehensive. Who were these private sector people trying to take over a public school serving mostly black children? And was it fair to give more resources to impoverished kids at one school but not them all?

She admits to a change of heart.

“I’ve been the one enlightened and have been really pleased by what I’ve seen,” said Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP chapter.

She has seen the counseling and three daily meals that address things like hunger, home disruptions and traumas that interfere with learning. She’s seen what 3- and 4-year-olds can learn so they are as ready for kindergarten as any other children. And she’s seen what she calls the “heart” of the school’s staff.

Now, she wants to see the Meeting Street model expanded to other schools. “If we could replicate that in a much bigger way, so many more kids would be privileged to receive that kind of quality education,” Scott said.

But the school didn’t only need to convince skeptical black community leaders. It needed parental buy-in.

They heard things like: Parents won’t show up. They’ll bring their kids to school tardy, if at all, and the children won’t be clean or ready to learn.

So the staff called and visited all of the incoming parents. They explained why being 10 minutes late to school matters. They held a barbecue for families. They sent out fliers. They made school T-shirts that say Team & Family.

Since school opened in August, staff have held monthly gatherings with parents. Parents must meet with teachers to get students’ report cards. Classes hold Friday celebrations to announce awards and sing classroom college songs.

At first, Baxter saw only a few parents at her daughter Gracie’s class celebrations. Today, she sees many.

“You can tell the teachers are working very hard with the kids. You see that, and it makes you want to be more a part of it,” Baxter said. Despite working and raising two kids alone, she has missed just one Friday celebration all semester.

She especially appreciates efforts to raise money to send every student home with a book on Fridays to build home libraries. Today, Gracie reads to her 3-year-old brother who will come to the school next year.

“It’s awesome,” Campbell said. “Parents love it, kids love it, and they are reading so much more at home.”

A few results: The school has a 97 percent on-time attendance rate. Just two students have received in-school suspensions, one for bringing a plastic gun to school and one for getting into a shoving match. Teachers describe parents who are active in the school. Baxter has recommended it to friends.

“As principal, I am really focused on creating a strong school culture,” Campbell said. “Culture is one of the hardest things to build in a school, but it doesn’t cost any money.”

Now, more parents want to come. Already, the constituent board has expanded the school’s boundary lines for next year.

There’s another old adage: Teachers don’t want to teach at low-income schools.

Yet Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood received about 1,000 inquiries and applications. It held 250 interviews for 19 teaching spots. That for a school that has received an exemption from the Teacher Employment and Dismissal Act, meaning its principal can fire teachers much more easily.

That principal has an MBA. Before coming here, Campbell was chief learning officer at the KIPP Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit charter network. The guidance counselor has a doctorate in clinical psychology. The staff is a melting pot of teachers from charter schools, neighborhood schools and magnets nationwide.

“If you put an effective teacher in the classroom, it’s going to make a difference,” said Federica Lyford-Pike, a second-grade teacher at Meeting Street Academy, the private school in Charleston.

Eischeid came from Mississippi where she taught low-income students in fourth grade. Most days, she felt hopeless in her classroom.

“There was no support, no resources,” she recalls. “I felt so isolated and frustrated. My kids needed so much, and I was only one person who was working with them.”

Now she has curriculum specialists, social workers, a counselor and others to assist her — and her students.

However, as the school gathers data during its first year, many educational eyes are watching to see: Will this model really help lower-income students perform as well as their more affluent peers?

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.